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The Film Noir Academy Awards

February 26, 2011

Film noir is a cinematic  genre which has been largely overlooked by the Oscars. To join in the fun of Sunday’s ceremony, I’d like to suggest some retrospective winners drawn from the genre of film noir. These things are always a matter of opinion, but I hope you enjoy some of the suggestions:

Best Film Noir Picture:

Touch of Evil (1958). This gripping and experimental noir is set in the fictional US/Mexico border town of Los Robles. Welles adeptly uses music and camera angles in a film more gripping than Citizen Kane and wider and more nuanced in character development. The complex meeting ground between America and Mexico is examined through an upright Mexican law enforcement officer (Charlton Heston), who is respected in his own country but made powerless on American soil, and is thwarted and framed by a corrupt sheriff on the other side (played by Welles himself). Heston’s perilous situation is parallelled with his beautiful American wife’s sexually menacing ordeal  in a hotel room at the hands of a Mexican gang.

Best Film Noir Director:

Billy Wilder

Wilder was nominated for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Double Indemnity (1944) but lost out to Joseph Mankiewicz for All About Eve and Leo McCary for Going My Way, a largely forgotten musical. Wilder was such a great film noir director because he could implicitly portray the essence of a Los Angeles, the spiritual home of American film noir, in all its quirkiness and superficiality. Two distinct directorial touches stand out: the image of William Holden’s corpse floating face down in the swimming pool in Sunset Boulevard, and from Double Indemnity an unflinching close-up shot of Barbara Stanwyck’s character while her husband is being bludgeoned to death in the seat next to her. Special mention should also go to his cult classic Ace in the Hole (1951).

Best Film Noir Actor:

Robert Mitchum

Night of the Hunter. By 1955 Mitchum had already secured his image as the cool and laconic tough guy, often as a criminal, but he never appeared so amoral so as to be unsympathetic. His role as the itinerant and criminal preacher Harry Powell was inspired casting against type. Mitchum effortlessly portrays a man who is the embodiment of pure evil, preying on people’s superstitions in the backwoods of West Virginia, invoking fear of damnation in others whilst simultaneously committing crimes such as murder. His psychopathic charismatic preacher is manipulative, emotionally overwhelming but not altogether unattractive, and perhaps just deluded enough to believe his merciless theology.  Mitchum’s aging Philip Marlowe in Farewell My Lovely (1975) was another outstanding noir performance and worth a mention here.

Best Film Noir Actress:

Joan Crawford

Crawford actually won the Academy Award for the title role in Mildred Pierce (1945), but it is worth mentioning again as one of the best film noir performances by an actress. Yet this was a difficult choice for me, as Gloria Grahame in In a Lonely Place (1952)deserves special mention for her complex portrayal of Laurel Grey, a woman who first provides the alibi for, but then later doubts her neighbour-turned-lover’s innocence. Crawford in Pierce is compelling as a woman whose self-sacrificial desire to give her daughter everything results in the ultimate betrayal of her affections. This is a noir more in the realist mode with the criminal elements played down for the drama of domesticity and normal life. Such material might seem unpromising but Crawford’s performance makes it compelling.

Best Film Noir Supporting Actor:

Edward G.Robinson

For his portrayal of insurance investigator Barton Keyes in Double Indemnity (1944), Robinson turns what should be the good guy of the piece into a menacing and calculating figure (as opposed to Fred MacMurray’s likable and charismatic murderer). But Robinson is more than just a threatening figure close to exposing MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck’s murderous scheme, his brilliant mind, ready wit and machine-like rhetorical delivery can be both exhilirating and funny. And in the denouement the character expresses a heretofore hidden empathy. Magic.

Best Film Noir Supporting Actress:

Thelma Ritter

Pick Up on South Street (1953). Ritter’s character’s take on ‘honour amongst thieves’, allows her to snitch on other pickpockets as a purely capitalist enterprise. But when Richard Widmark’s petty thief is sought by a coldhearted killer working for the Communists, Ritter defiantly returns to a protective position, knowing it will result in her death. Ritter was actually nominated for the role, but lost out to Donna Reed for From Here to Eternity.

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